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“This Is My Song”

Profile of a Bilingual Congregation in the Heart of San Antonio

“¡Buenos dias, hermana! ¿Cómo amaneció? ¡Good, morning, sister! ¿How are you today?” These are the words I hear every Sunday when I arrive at my congregation. We start the day with a short prayer meeting. We sing a hymn, read a psalm, and then voice the petitions and prayers for the day: healing for those who are ill, safe journeys for those who are traveling, jobs for those who are unemployed, and the needs of the community, both local and global. We also take time to thank God for bringing us together once more, sharing words of praise for God’s love and faithfulness manifested in the course of the previous week. Most of the prayers are spoken in Spanish, but Portuguese and English also are used. Our pastor says the closing prayer and invites the congregation to sing another song. Invariably, the song we sing is “¡Majestad! ¡Gloria a su majestad!”

We then move to the fellowship hall and share cups of coffee paired with breakfast tacos made with varying combinations of refried beans, cheese, chorizo, potatoes, and scrambled eggs. Occasionally the volunteer cooks surprise the congregation with the greatest breakfast dish of all: a bowl of hot—in temperature and in spiciness—menudo, which is tripe cooked in a beef broth with red chili pepper and hominy and topped with chopped raw onions, cilantro, oregano, crushed red chili peppers, and a few squeezes of fresh lime. Yes, this is breakfast at my congregation, First Mexican Baptist Church of San Antonio or Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana de San Antonio.

Primera, as we usually refer to it, was founded in 1888 and is the second-oldest Mexican Baptist congregation in the United States. Tejanos (Texans of Mexican descent), Hispanics, Latinos, and Latinas are all terms used to refer to Mexican Americans in Texas, and a number of members of Primera fall into that category. Another significant segment of the congregation is Mexican
immigrants, and there is a small contingent of Anglo-Americans. A few members are immigrants from other Latin American countries such as Cuba, Ecuador, and Brazil.

Due to our history and our location—the population of San Antonio is more than sixty percent Hispanic, and the city is not very far from the Mexican border—Spanish is the primary language spoken at Primera. Like many other Hispanic Protestant churches, this congregation is a place where the use of Spanish is encouraged and defended, being one of the few places where a new generation may learn formal Spanish.

It has been suggested that the bilingual and bicultural nature of churches such as Primera help Mexican immigrants assimilate into American society and, by the same token, help Mexican Americans connect with their cultural heritage. Immigrants are pleased by the opportunity to have their American-born children regularly practice Spanish. As poignantly described by a member of the Mexican American community, the church “opened its doors to us when access was denied in other places because we were Mexican Americans. It accepted and affirmed us while other institutions rejected us as well as our Mexican culture. . . . It was in church that I learned that God was bilingual, that God understood Spanish” (David Maldonado Jr., Crossing Guadalupe Street: Growing Up Hispanic and Protestant. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001).

We are not exclusive, though. Around 2000, the church decided to add an English service to its schedule. Now we have two separate services every Sunday, one in English and one in Spanish, and some very active members and leaders in our congregation speak English only.

In spite of differences in language, culture, nationality, and ethnic background, we are one congregation. As we strive for unity in the midst of such diversity, a few of our practices help us to face some of the challenges posed by this multicultural, bilingual context. Both Sunday services are planned and led by the same bilingual leadership team: one senior pastor, one associate pastor, one music director, and one pianist. Both services are held in the same space, the main sanctuary. Both services follow the same format and include the same elements, and we share most of the same hymns and congregational songs.

Music plays a crucial role in supporting the church’s cultural and linguistic priorities. First, for the members of the congregation who are Mexican immigrants, the idea of the church as a safe haven is realized partly by singing old, favorite hymns in Spanish—hymns that remind church members of Mexico or of hearing the gospel for the first time, hymns learned from parents and grandparents or sung during revival meetings. Second, because these are traditional hymns— most of them translated from English into Spanish—they are very familiar to the Mexican Americans, Tejanos, and Anglo-Americans in the congregation as well. Third, the work of North American missionaries in Latin America has had a direct influence on the hymns and songs that make up our church’s congregational song repertoire. So Mexicans, Brazilians, and Ecuadorians are familiar with each other’s hymns because they are, for the most part, hymns learned from North American missionaries.

We do sing some hymns and songs composed originally in Spanish, such as “Jesús es mi Rey soberano” (“Jesus Is My Sovereign King” PH 157), “El que habita al abrigo de Dios” (“Those Who Dwell in the Shelter of God” PFAS 91C), and “Te exaltaré, mi Dios, mi Rey” (“I Will Exalt My God, My King” LUYH 37, PFAS 145C, PsH 186, SNC 27, GtG 322), all beloved by the congregation. We also have a large repertoire of coritos (popular religious choruses sung in Spanish) that we sing from memory (“Alabaré,” “No hay Dios tan grande como tu” LUYH 275, and “Una mirada de fe,” for example). But this does not prevent us from embracing some hymns written in other languages and later translated into Spanish, such as “When Peace Like a River (It Is Well with My Soul)” LUYH 451, GtG 840, TH 691, WR 428, “How Great Thou Art” LUYH 553, GtG 625, TH 44, WR 51, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” LUYH 348, GtG 39, TH 32, WR 72, and “Day by Day” LUYH 437, TH 676, WR 449.

One interesting hymn among our congregation’s preferred songs is “¡Maestro, se encrespan las aguas!” It’s a translation of the old American hymn “Master, the Tempest Is Raging,” written by Mary A. Baker (1831–1921) and set to music by Horatio Richmond Palmer (1834–1907). This hymn is no longer sung in most English-speaking Baptist congregations in this country—the last time it was included in a Baptist hymnal was in the 1940 edition of the Broadman Hymnal—but it continues to be highly favored among traditional Hispanic congregations, including Primera.

This eclectic repertoire makes it possible for our diverse congregation to converge in the songs we share, whether they were written in Europe, the United States, North or South America, or beyond. We welcome them all. Music can bring together seemingly incompatible parts, helping to create a special social or geographical space that Josh Kun calls an “audiotopia.” I believe the hymns, coritos, and other traditional songs that make up Primera’s repertoire do more than simply fulfill the expected roles of congregational music in the life of a church. For many members of this established immigrant, minority congregation, this repertoire recreates Mexico and the home churches they left behind.

As for the issue of authenticity, I believe that Primera’s choice of repertoire finds validity in several ways: through the theological lessons learned in the texts we sing, the memories and feelings evoked by singing these hymns, and the strengthening of our fellowship inspired by the practice of singing the same songs even if we cannot always do it at the same time. Here, the U.S.–born, the immigrant (documented or not), the Tejano, the monolingual, the bilingual—all are invited to choose a language and join in singing to the Lord a well-known song. For those who arrive before the Sunday morning service, either English or Spanish, there will be coffee, tacos, and, on some very special occasions, menudo. ¡Bendiciones!

English-Spanish Bilingual Hymnals

  • Praise y Adoración: Praise y Adoración is a multi-denominational, bilingual hymnal and worship resource that provides the lyrics of 950 Christian hymns and coritos (short songs) available in both English and Spanish as well as where to locate the musical accompaniment in seventy-five other hymnals and songbooks published from 1931 to 2016. It also contains liturgical resources and topical Bible readings in English and Spanish. It can be used as a stand-alone congregational hymnal or to complement a denominational hymnal.
  • Oramos Cantando/We Pray in Song. Intended especially for the growing number of multicultural, bilingual (Latino/Anglo) parishes and communities in the United States, Oramos Cantando/We Pray in Song is a hymnal and service book that is comprehensive enough to satisfy the liturgical needs of such communities whether they are worshipping in Spanish, in English, or bilingually.
  • Coming . . . Calvin Institute for Christian Worship and GIA Publications are teaming up to produce a bilingual hymnal for Protestant congregations. Details will be available in the near future.